U.S. Open Brass Band Championships
By Michael Boo
November 8, 2003
John Hersey High School Auditorium
Arlington Heights, Illinois, USA
Having never been to a brass band championship, being unfamiliar with the execution of the British brass band concept, and wondering what I got myself into by agreeing to review the inaugural event for a new annual championship, it’s perhaps easy to comprehend my anticipation at hearing the first notes of the Prairie Brass Band as the ensemble opened up the festival.
E-flat Tenor Horns and E-Flat Basses…this is certainly not an American concert band brass ensemble. And what is this thing named “Repiano?” We don’t have anything like that in the drum and bugle corps world that I spend so much time covering.
Frank Renton hosted the entire day. The host of BBC Radio 2’s weekly “Listen to the Band” program and an esteemed conductor, he kept things light and airy, while still managing to enlighten.
The event was judged by John Phillips from Canada and Alan Morrison from Great Britain. Judging was based on a method of evaluation that focused on the positive qualities of the performance as opposed to simply recording technical errors, considering what was presented and how well it was performed.
The event was organized by members of the Prairie Brass Band, headed up Band President Clark Niermeyer, son of Prairie Brass Band director Dallas Niermeyer. Dallas and Clark conceived the event over a period of years. Band members Lorian Hamilton and Linda Eckles were also deeply in the planning and execution of the event.
Prairie Brass Band, under the direction of Dallas Niermeyer, opened the festivities with Stan Kenton’s 1941 classic, “Artistry in Rhythm,” arranged by Dallas Niermeyer. From the opening brash chords, it was apparent this idiom was far beyond anything conceived for a pep band. The sound of a brass band in a piece like this balances between being searing and boisterous. But in Adrian Drover’s “Mr. Nice Guy,” a smooth ballad featuring trombonist Linda Yeo, the urgency of the opening selection succumbed to the lush chordal accompaniment that comforted the soul.
Michael Bull’s “An English Suite” is a contemporary take on English musical sensibilities. Jubilant and then heart wrenching, the work closed with the forward propulsion of a march-like finale that got the blood to boiling again.
Every session needs something on the lighter side, and Goff Richards’ “Breezin’ Down Broadway” brought together a number of classic Broadway hits with a large degree of “oomph.” The Caribbean-styled “St. Thomas,” arranged by Sonny Rollins, allowed the band to “cook” a little, letting the percussion groove sound like triple the number of players.
The host band’s portion of the festival ended with William Rimmer’s classic march, “Slaidburn.” The chorus by the low brass rocked this writer’s laptop computer. Founded only six years ago, this up and coming brass band offered volumes of hope for the growth of the activity in the Midwest portion of this country.
The Milwaukee Festival Brass, under the direction of Wales native Trefor Williams (wearing a kilt for this occasion), kicked off its power-packed collection of selections with Russell Alexander’s “Bedford’s Carnival March,” a hyperactive work liberally utilizing oodles of brass runs and articulate stabs of musical frosting.
The lusciousness of Nicholas Brodosky’s “I’ll Walk With God,” (from “The Student Prince”), arranged by Goff Richards, allowed the band members to meld together into one solid sonority a sound more closely resembling something one might hear come out of pipe organ. This was the type of gut-wrenching chorale that can rip out one’s heartstrings. The audience was visibly moved by the richness of the performance.
“Love Changes Everything” (from “Sunset Strip”), by Andrew Lloyd Webber and arranged by Stephen Bulla, unveiled the pop face of the ensemble. With percussion supplying a groove that never got in the way of the brass, the melody climaxed into a shimmering hit that would lead the audience to expect spotlights to shine from the sides of the stage.
Goff Richards’ “Disney Fantasy” closed the band’s contribution with a tribute to some of the film studio’s best known and loved melodies. Re-creating the tight resonance of a studio orchestra, this travelogue through the file cabinets of Disney hits offered a number of shimmering effects that required this writer to look up from the laptop more than once in order to figure out how the effect was being accomplished. Not just a collection of Disney tunes, this piece oozed a personal charisma that was matched by the band’s fastidious attention to detail.
What followed next taught a new word to most of the Americans in the audience, “Buskers.” According to the program book, the term means “to play music or perform entertainment in a public place, usually while soliciting money.” Only traditional brass band instrumentation, plus percussion—with or without piano accompaniment—is allowed.
Five members of the Fodens Richardson Band from northwest England played the spiritual, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” The four-person tuba section from the Prairie Brass Band then played Van Morrison’s “Moondance.”
Founded just three years ago, the Brass Band of Central Florida, under the direction of Michael J. Garasi, impressed the audience with its innovation staging and artistic flash.
“Ardoss Castle” from “Hymn of the Highlands” by Philip Sparke opened with only four percussionists on stage. Lone brass voices off-stage accompanied the walking on to the stage by the small ensemble of brass that were soon to play. As the early sections took to the stage, sans conductor, one could swear the ensemble had snuck in a set of bagpipes. As crisp as a newly pressed pair of trousers, the articulation and blend of ensemble during the myriad style changes was nothing short of scary.
Clive Barraclough’s “Simoraine” had sort of a circus march quality to it, with blazing trombones and clarion trumpet runs. Band member Chris Sharp’s arrangement of Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malaguena,” based on the famed arrangement of Johnny Richards for the Kenton Band, woke up every fiber of muscles among the audience members. One could be forgiven for expecting molten lava to come pouring out of the bells of the trumpets that took to the front of the stage.
The solo melody to “Over the Rainbow,” arranged by Goff Richards, was lovingly delivered by an E-flat Horn player dressed in drag as the Judy Garland character from the movie, “The Wizard of Oz.”
Long a standard of the American wind band, Sharp’s arrangement of Ron Nelson’s “Rocky Point Holiday” invigorated the tiles in the ceiling of the auditorium with its should-be-impossible-to-play runs and written-for-woodwind figures that left the audience somewhere between stunned and too impressed to think. A whirlwind of velocity akin to a tornado, the piece pushed further and further towards the edge technically possibility, risking sweeping itself right off the stage.
Folden’s Richardson Band contributed a seven-piece Buskers group (Folden’s number 2) that got down and funky, with lots of disco-like choreography during its hard-driving rock groove that left the audience screaming in appreciation.
After the lunch break, East Iowa Brass Band, directed by Earle W. Dickinson, took to the stage section-by-section like an old-fashioned American country scene of townspeople showing up for a picnic. Attired in “Music Man” era garb, the members were out to have a grand old time, starting with “Lickety Split,” commissioned by the band and arranged by Steve Shanley. This piece was superimposed over a repetitive bass figure that got the feet of the audience to shuffling.
The lovely chorales of “Scottish Hymns” by Charles Hutcheson, arranged by John Blanken, gradually increased in intensity, until a euphoric culmination of emotion swept the piece away under a wave of bliss. Jeffrey Argrell is known as a jazz composer. His “Oh No!,” built upon a casual walking bass figure, provided a swinging contrast. Russel Alexander’s “Belford’s Carnival March” was delivered in a calliope-like fashion, becoming ever faster before to its close.
“Hymn of the Highlands, Mvts. I III” of Philip Sparke started with an elegiac chorale, followed by a vigorous rouse of Highland glee. “Mvt. III,” sprinkled over a bed of vigorous drumbeats, heralded the numerous brass proclamations that were to follow, some rather violent in temperament, ultimately being overtaken by a sense of victorious acclamation.
The next Buskers on the docket was “Jazz on the Prairie,” a Blues Brothers-inspired presentation by members of the host band.
Foden’s Richardson Band has been around since 1900, with a quite distinguished past as one of the top groups in England for several decades. Under the direction of Thomas Wyss, the ensemble has maintained its place among the pantheon of brass bands in the world.
The fanfare proclamation of “Festmusick der Stadt Wien” by Richard Strauss, arranged by Eric Banks, showed just how rich and full such a band can be. The opening sound caused people to flinch in amazement, as it sounded as if a couple hundred players were on the stage.
Kenneth J. Alford’s march, “Army of the Nile,” put the “brass” in “brassy.” Egad, this interpretation could cause eyeglasses to shatter. Thunderous one moment and tender the next, the band clearly demonstrated its ability to unleash power when needed and constrain the power for dynamic contrast. “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow” by Irving Berlin, arranged by Howard Snell, allowed all to swim in the band’s gorgeous ensemble vibrato.
Based on “Rule Britannia,” “Air varie,” arranged by Alan Fernie, showed off the awesome technique of one of the band’s most versatile members, Glyn Williams, playing a solo on Euphonium, Cornet, Trombone, Flugelhorn, E-flat horn, Piccolo Trumpet and a finishing flourish on Xylophone. This production was truly remarkable beyond words.
The comical “Hornpipe Humoresque” by Noel Rawstorne, arranged by Andrew Duncan, featured a variety of intentional wrong notes and miscues, directed by a host of band members. I don’t know if it’s really possible to describe this slapstick gem. It’s one of those “you had to be there” types of moments.
“Finale from Symphony No. IV” by Tchaikovsky, arranged by Derek Ashmore, finished off the band’s segment with dramatic aplomb. The flurry of runs and brass fanfares made for an awesome finale. Jaws dropped throughout the auditorium, as the power of the brass declarations drilled into the brains of those present. Incredible stuff.
If there’s more like this over in England, I want to go there and let the waves of spectacular sound take over my very being. How fortunate we are that this amazing group chose to come across the pond for this inaugural event. The audience certainly recognized that, as the standing ovation went on for quite an extended time.
The next Buskers’ performance was Brad Hecker from Prairie Brass, performing a solo on tuba, trombone, and euphonium.
The final band of the day was the Illinois Brass Band, under direction of Peter Lipari. The band opened up its part of the festival backstage to “Also Sprach Zarathrstra” by Richard Strauss, arranged by K. van der Woude. With costumed headgear sprouting up throughout the group, the band solemnly launched into Freddie Mercury’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” arranged by D. Barry. Solemnity was short-lived, however, as the piece soon kicked into a bouncy overdrive until the end.
“Cross of Honor” by W. Rimmer, arranged by F. Richardson, showed that the band could also play the traditional-type brass band segment of the repertoire with equal dexterity as the not-so traditional works. “Hello Dolly” by J. Herman, arranged by Ken Norman, had the band sounding like a glossy Hollywood back-up ensemble at the Oscars, featuring a walk-on by a Dolly wannabe.
“Arunjuez Con Tu Amor Rodrigo,” arranged by Ken Norman, utilized the famed Rodrigo melody in a tender ballad for solo Flugelhorn. The frequent champion of American brass band festivals closed its presentation with “River Dance” by B. Whelan, arranged by R. Farr, capturing many of the uplifting melodies from the theatrical hit. Rhythmically intense, this arrangement propelled the band throughout, with lots of finger busting passages to delight and inspire.
The Awards Ceremony was held during a special banquet later in the day. Participation certificates were given to all the participant ensembles and vendors. Emcee Frank Renton was asked to present the awards.
The Buskers Honorable Mention for Authenticity went to Brad Hecker from Prairie Brass for his solo performance. The Buskers Award of $133 in small change and bills went to the ensemble number 2 from Folden’s Richardson Band.
The Best Solo Performance plaque and $250 was awarded to Glyn Williams of Folden’s Richardson band. The Best New Composition or Arrangement plaque and $250 was awarded to arranger Chris Sharp of the Brass Band of Central Florida. The Best Performance of a March award of a plaque and $250 was earned by Folden’s Richardson Band. The award for the Most Entertaining Band also went to Folden’s Richardson Band.
The U.S. Open Championship Runner-Up trophy cup and a check for $500 was earned by Brass Band of Central Florida. The Overall Winner/U.S. Open Championship of a trophy and $1,000 went to Folden’s Richardson Band.
At the end of the Awards Ceremony, the two judges shared their thoughts on what they witnessed earlier in the day.
Judge John Philips stated, “The thing that struck me most about the event, I really felt that each of the six groups had character and personality that was unique to their own organization. Often at this type of competition, the groups are homogenized and sound similar. Today, it was very refreshing to see that each band brought to the stage its own identity. Excellent standards were presented and the element of entertainment helped all the groups to communicated effectively with the audience.”
Judge Alan Morrison added, “I think that every band we heard today has had something of offer in regards to their own identity and being able to express themselves. The standards witnessed in the bands—being able to entertain the judges and people in the audience—were particularly high. I was especially delighted at the standards of the American bands. It won’t be too long before bands we heard today will be able to compete with the likes of Folden’s and beat them as well. The organization here was wonderful and we were all treated wonderfully as well.”
If you’ve never been to such an event, and you live within a hemisphere of Chicago, you should consider putting the second-ever U.S. Open Brass Band Championship on your calendar for next year. In person, you would experience what others have talked about. This idiom/genre/activity of brass bands just might be one of the best of the best-kept secrets in this country. It shouldn’t be such a secret.
One thing for certain…if you came to the event, you would never be bored.
Michael Boo writes extensively for Drum Corps International, creating text for program books, CD and DVD liner notes, and content on www.DCI.org. He also writes for BOA (Bands of America), WGI (Winter Guard International) and a variety of magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]